Working out of the Wolds village of Thixendale, Robert Fuller is one of Yorkshire’s most successful artists. Here he reveals his top 10 spots for capturing the county’s wildlife on canvas.
Much of my work as an artist involves scrutinising the world about me in intricate detail and as a wildlife artist in particular this means spending a lot of time out in the field watching and recording different species.
To get my paintings right, I have to look carefully at the patterns in a bird’s feathers and how the scales on a claw are shaped. But, and just as importantly, I also watch the behaviour of each bird or animal in different circumstances so that when I come to paint my subject I am recording not just its appearance but its character and movement too.
This means I can spend months watching a specific barn owl or kingfisher in its natural environment, learning where it lives, what it eats, how many young it has and how it brings them up. When I find a new species to watch I start by learning all its particular habits and daily routines. Next I put up a hide in a place that I know it will visit regularly so that I can photograph it at closer quarters.
I have become adept at reading the landscape around me and learning where to find different species and how to anticipate sightings. It’s a skill that has taken me years to develop but I know the different calls and sounds made by most species and can distinguish, among many others, the noise a tawny owl makes whilst hunting from the sound it makes when courting.
Although I travel the world to watch different species in their natural habitats, most of my time is spent watching and recording Yorkshire wildlife, and the birds and animals that live in this beautiful county are among my favourite.
Yorkshire spans some of the most varied landscapes in the country, including Wolds, Dales and Moors, and these different habitats support a wide variety of species, but here are my top 10 spots to spot wildlife.
Red stag rut, Studley Royal
When you can’t get up to the Highlands of Scotland to see the red stag rut, Studley Royal is the next best thing. It’s very accessible and set in breath-taking parkland graced with ancient sweet chestnut, beech and oak trees. The stags roar as they parallel walk to assess their opponents’ size and strength. Fights involve a dramatic clash of antlers. Don’t get too close!
Also see: Little owls, great spotted and green woodpeckers and nuthatches in the deer park, stoats hunting rabbits around the ruins of Fountains Abbey and up to 10 little grebes fishing in the architectural ponds.
Adders at Allerthorpe Common
As England’s only venomous snake, there’s something a little bit edgy about coming across an adder, although you might be surprised how small they are. Allerthorpe Common has the perfect mixture of rough, open countryside and woodland edge habitat for them to thrive in. Find them basking outside their hibernation dens on warm sunny days in spring (sometimes as early as February) and in April watch the males wrestle as they compete over females in a ritual known as the “dance of the adders”. If you’re patient see them hunting lizards too. And don’t worry they’re not aggressive. They only use venom as a last means of defence, if they are caught or trodden on. It’s also worth looking in the ditch outside the reserve, next to the footpath.
Also see: Cross bills, long-tailed tits, jays and brimstone butterflies here.
The reserve is off Sutton Lane, Barmby Moor on the A1079. www.ywt.org.uk.
Otters, Tophill Low Reserve, Driffield
Otters are very elusive and especially so in freshwater but they are regularly seen all over this excellent reserve, especially from the Southern Marsh hides. Look out for their wake in open water or a row of bubbles usually gives the game away. Listen too for their high-pitched birdlike calls.
Also see: More than 160 bird species recorded here including massive flocks of black headed gulls, kingfishers and marsh harriers.
Tophill Low Nature Reserve is situated four miles from Watton village on the A164 Beverley to Driffield road.
Kingfishers, Howsham, near Malton
Kingfisher sightings are common on this lovely walk between Howsham Bridge and Kirkham Abbey which flanks the River Derwent. Listen out for a high-pitched call as kingfishers whizz up and down stream. It’s worth visiting after the leaves have fallen off the trees as you get better views of the river.
Also see: Otters and their tracks on the riverbank, barn owls, goosanders, bullfinches, redpolls feeding on alders, the recently renovated Howsham Mill and impressive ruins of Kirkham Abbey.
Pied wagtail winter roost, Parliament Street, York
They tweet, they twitter, they chat, they chitter just as the Christmas market is on right in the centre of York. Literally hundreds of pied wagtails congregate from mid-afternoon onwards right outside the front Marks & Spencer. They look like Christmas decorations as they roost in the trees, but get your binoculars out and you’ll see it is a real Christmas miracle – they are taking advantage of the warmth generated from the city.
Also see: A peregrine that roosts high up on the medieval pinnacles of York Minster.
The roost is at the bottom end of Parliament Street, outside Marks & Spencer.
Waxwings, city centres
These starling-sized birds with striking markings and a noticeable sweeping crest flock here from Scandinavia to plunder the rowan berries. If you have a pair of binoculars, you’ll soon see why the waxwing earned its name. Look out for the tear-shaped red droplet on their secondary flight wings which looks like dripping candle wax.
Waxwings are truly nomadic. Once a food source is depleted they will move on to find the next. So, you need to act immediately on any tip-off. But hot spots include St George’s Field car park in York, outside Pocklington Grammar School in Pocklington and the car parks at Meadowhall, Sheffield.
Follow updates on twitter @waxwingsuk.
Waterfowl, Wheldrake Ings
Choose a crisp sunny afternoon in winter to see the whirling spectacle of thousands of teal, wigeon, golden plover and lapwing flying in dramatic formations over flooded meadows. The sights, sounds and colours here are magical. I especially like the whistling call of the wigeon. Stay until dusk when whooper swans fly in to roost on the floodwater.
Also see: Water vole and otters.
The best spot is between the villages of Thorganby and Wheldrake.
Short eared owls, Millington Pastures
Short eared owl numbers increase significantly over winter as they migrate from Scandinavia to the vole-rich valleys of the Yorkshire Wolds. See them hunting on the wing in the afternoon when they are at their most active. Numbers fluctuate but I’ve seen up to seven together here.
Also see: water rail, bullfinch, kingfisher, brown hare, barn owls, red kites, buzzards and roe deer.
Follow signs to Millington Wood from the village of Millington. Go past the woods, parking near the pond. Walk up the valley on foot. Scan dale sides with binoculars and check out bushes and fence posts too.
Woodcock, Spurn Point and all along the East Coast
Woodcock are nocturnal feeders and their plumage which mimics a woodland floor makes them so camouflaged that they are difficult to spot. Legend has it that they fly into the UK on the night of the November full moon and can be seen in large numbers at Spurn Point around now.
But the timing of their arrival as migrants from Scandinavia is largely dependent on the winds. They arrive here exhausted and hungry so you see them feeding during the day, sometimes just by the roadside, frantically probing the ground for worms.
Also see: This narrow strip of land across the mouth of the Humber estuary is also a landing spot for up to 15,000 migratory birds, including knot, arctic, sandwich and common terns, shearwaters and sanderlings. The bushy terrain inland is a haven for goldcrests and roe deer and seals are also a common sight along the shoreline.
Red kites, Harrogate
Watch the spectacular aerial displays of 10 or more red kites as they play a game of chase in the skies above the Great Yorkshire Showground in Harrogate. Red kites are unusually sociable birds and surprisingly acrobatic. Go in the afternoon to spot them swooping in the air before dusk.
• Robert Fuller’s exhibition Yorkshire: An Artist’s Perspective opens at his gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire, today and runs until November 30. It is open weekdays from 9.30am-4.30pm and from 10am-4.30pm on weekends. For a full list of all the nature walks, talks and other events taking place visit www.robertefuller.com